NZ Education Gazette Dec 2008: Guy Claxton and Key Competencies by Wayne Erb

GUY CLAXTON is an international expert on learning – he’s also a fan of the new curriculum’s key competencies. WAYNE ERB reports

Ever step back from teaching and consider the metaphor that best describes your understanding of how the education system works? Guy Claxton has and for too many education systems, the appropriate metaphor he comes up with is “assembly line”.

And the British professor is adamant that “assembly line” must change to “mind gym” in education systems that want to create life-long learners.

Schooling should prepare people for how they actually learn in the real world and how that works is something we still need to understand better, he says.

It’s also the job he’s taken on for himself as Professor of the Learning Sciences and head of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, UK.

Guy is a frequent visitor to New Zealand and was here again recently, in part because he can see the potential of the new curriculum and its components like the key competencies.

“There’s an opportunity here and I’m bowled over by the amount of good work that has gone into your new curriculum.”

Translating curriculum ideals like the key competencies into effective teacher practice is an issue grappled with in many countries including his native England, he says, addressing Ministry of Education staff and School Support Services advisers who support schools in their implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum.

Get the process wrong, and it can end on the scrap-heap of good ideas that didn’t stick. (He’s seen that happen in other countries). But if it works, young people will emerge better equipped for life.

“Let’s say in five years’ time there will be children, young people; all of them, coming out of school not just having been introduced to the key competencies but feeling the worth and value of them in their lives, feeling more capable and confident embarkers on life in the 21st century because of these shifts in the curriculum.”

He sees the New Zealand Curriculum in the context of a return to education as the cultivation of character.

But whereas character in 19th century schooling had class connotations, his thoughts carry a clear egalitarian streak. For example, he’s fascinated by how footballers and hairdressers learn to be the best they can.

So far, he says, no country has fully achieved the education transformation he speaks about and if New Zealand is to succeed, the key competencies must be embedded in each school’s culture and most importantly in the “microclimate” of the classroom.

Teachers need to ensure the competencies come as second nature to young people when needed in real life. Lessons, then, might focus on concrete topics but should also put the competencies into play – something Guy has previously called “split screen thinking” on the teacher’s part.

“You can’t do lessons just about key competencies. It is useful to talk about them but to believe that just by talking about them you are cultivating them is naive,” he says.

Competencies should pervade the functional language of the classroom and influence reports how teachers talk to parents and the questions they pose to students.

Ask a child to complete their ‘work’ rather than posing open questions about their learning and you’ll only succeed in focusing children on the completion of tasks, he says.

To drive improvement, it is important that teachers see the potential for students to grow their capacity to learn if taught well.

When a group of history teachers bemoaned to him that students used Wikipedia uncritically, Guy’s response was to ask what they did to build their students’ scepticism.

Teachers can start on that track by demonstrating the same dispositions they seek in their students, he says.

“If students are to become competent don’tknowers and finders-out, they have to see the teacher do that too.”

Guy says embedding key competencies in a school’s culture would include the need to develop models and indicators of progress, create professional learning communities and collaborate with other schools. It is important to have realistic time-scales in place for change and to constantly reaffirm your goals, he says. Refer back to the curriculum vision and knit the competencies through everything you do.

The quintessential life-long learner
Guy Claxton describes himself as “an experienced struggler” in terms of fitting important competencies into the curriculum. He’s also apt to quote T.S. Eliot, is an experimental psychologist and studies the convergence between Buddhism and neuroscience.

Along the way he has written several books including Building Learning Power, a title he also uses for his presentations to teachers.

That’s a lot to keep him busy, but understanding the processes of learning is a common thread to his research.

He opened the Centre for Real-World Learning in September to find out how successful people in many walks of life develop the confidence and capacity to drive their passion for learning.

His is a hybrid discipline embracing everything from neuroscience to socio-cultural studies. He trawls research literature and has supervised over 400 action research projects in education settings.

“I get more intellectual fun, more challenging, thoughtful fun when working directly with teachers and students than working in the university,” he says.

He thinks the influences on a person’s intelligence are broad and mental performance links with emotion, intuition, the body and social factors. He also turns attention to his own mind.

“I’m really interested in my own learning. I like to cook, that’s my hands-on thing and I’m interested in how I learn, how I can know intuitively to add more of this, less of that.”

Related weblinks
The New Zealand Curriculum website has key resources, support materials and digital stories about the key competencies:

One model for schools to consider when developing the key competencies is the enterprising attributes developed by the Ministry of Education as part of Education for Enterprise. They provide a context for integrating enterprising approaches to teaching and learning. Proficiency indicators are available for schools to adapt. Visit the redeveloped website and enter searches for ‘attributes’ and ‘teacher notes’:

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